How do two days, more than a hundred cyclists riding 200 miles and more than a half-million dollars of philanthropic history add up to an HIV battle? The people behind the 2010 AIDS Vaccine 200 on Saturday and Sunday have a simple answer.
“Around the world and here in the United States, HIV infection rates are on the rise again, especially in younger people,” says Todd Wiggins, the founder of Action Cycling Atlanta and its first AIDS Vaccine ride in 2003.
“At the same time, a recent New York Times’ article says that worldwide funding is plateauing or decreasing. The money’s not going to be there, so as the number of people infected continues to rise, the money is actually going down, especially in places like Africa,” he adds.
Wiggins says the idea behind the annual two-day, 200 mile journey from Emory to Eatonton and back that benefits the Emory Vaccine Center and its Hope Clinic, remains as important in 2010 as it was when the event began.
“Prevention is key to the strategy to fighting AIDS, but it’s clearly not going to work with everybody everywhere, so research for an AIDS vaccine has to be a prominent part of the overall strategy,” he continues. “Prevention and treatment, yes, but a vaccine is the only way we’re ever going to see an end to this thing.”
Bret Busch, who’s heading up the 2010 AV200, says that the reasons people ride vary, but for him, it’s personal.
“My brother-in-law has HIV, my former partner died of HIV, and I have very close friends who are HIV positive,” he says. “I reached a point in my life where I needed to contribute something more than being the life of the party. So I looked for something to challenge myself and give back to the community at the same time.”
A fundraiser last month (view photos) helped the group raise $80,000 by the end of April. As of Thursday, the tally was nearly double that.
“It was tough to get people going early on, but the donations are pouring in now,” Busch says.
Some 137 riders are registered, and Busch expects about 120 people to be trained and ready to make the final trek for the cause when it begins early Saturday morning. 85 riders in last year’s AV 200 (photos) raised $175,000, topping the 2008 donation of $106,000 by 65 riders.
To date, the organization has donated about $575,000 to vaccine research. Get in on this year’s action by sponsoring a rider or making a general donation to help them ride past last year’s record.
As the primary beneficiary, Emory Vaccine Center and its Hope Clinic work to find ways to attack the disease at every stage, including a preventative vaccine. In December, the clinic began enrolling about 120 local men in its portion of the HIV Vaccine Trials Network Lifeforward Study, which is testing a preventative vaccine on 1,350 men in 12 U.S. cities.
If proven, the preventative vaccine could slow the progression of HIV by decreasing the viral load of people already infected. The study will also investigate what impact the vaccine may have on people who become infected during the testing.
Other local AIDS service organizations in Atlanta are getting in on the AV 200 action as well. Jerusalem House and Positive Impact each have riding teams that will get to donate 25 percent of what they raise to their own cause and contribute 75 percent to the vaccine center.
“The only way we can move forward with HIV, like every other disease, is to do clinical trials,” Mark Mulligan, executive director of the Hope Clinic told Project Q Atlanta last year. “We rely on the community and the LGBT community, which has always been a big supporter. This is one of the great scientific quests of our generation.”
When the ride comes full circle on Sunday, Busch invites everyone to come out and cheer the riders on this year’s victory. The finish line is at the Emory School of Medicine one block off Clifton Road on Pierce Drive.
“The more people that come, the better,” Busch says. “We’ll have barbecue and beer, and it will be a great celebration.”